NFL

Tight end evolution creating new look for NFL

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INDIANAPOLIS (AP)

Eric Ebron exuded confidence from the moment he walked into Lucas Oil Stadium on Thursday.

The top-rated tight end in this year's draft class quickly explained how he could catch passes over the middle, contend with bigger defenders and even improve his blocking.

Yes, Ebron promised to do anything that any NFL team asked - if the club is smart enough to draft him in May.

''If you need me, if you need a tight end, I'm here on the draft board,'' he said with a daring smile Thursday at the NFL's annual scouting combine.

At 6-foot-2 and 250 pounds, five pounds heavier than his college playing weight, Ebron typifies the modern day tight end.

They aren't just pass-catching or blocking specialists anymore.

Instead, teams are increasingly looking at multi-dimensional players who can really challenge defenses.

This rookie class is rife with possibilities.

In addition to the incredibly athletic Ebron, there's the bulky 6-foot-2, 262-pound Austin Seferian-Jenkins, who considers himself a playmaking receiver, and Trey Burton, who was recruited by Florida as a quarterback and wound up playing receiver and returning kicks before his college career ended.

After playing last season at 222, he still looks out of place with a handful of the other 22 tight ends in Indy tipping the scales at 260 or more.

As the position has evolved, though, guys such as Ebron and Seferian-Jenkins have become increasingly valuable commodities.

''It does put stress on your defense if you've got a guy who can in-line block and create bad matchups for your safeties and linebackers,'' said new Tampa Bay coach Lovie Smith, who spent most of his career coaching as a defensive assistant. ''I think it's safe to say they are getting bigger and bigger, and that's an area we're obviously looking at. It seems like every team is looking for that perfect tight end, and once you get one, it's pretty special.''

For some teams, such as the Buccaneers, finding the right guy will be a priority over the next 2 1/2 months.

There are plenty of options to consider.

Some of this year's combine invitees have backgrounds playing basketball, running track or competing in other sports. Others have prominent bloodlines. Jake Murphy's father, Dale, is a former Major League All-Star, and his brother Shawn was once with the Denver Broncos.

Yet it's the uniquely talented Ebron, who currently is on top of the rankings.

''I'm very fast and very different,'' said Ebron, a projected first-round pick who compared himself to San Francisco's Vernon Davis. ''I play the tight end position like no one else. I just do things that other tight ends don't do.''

The transition of moving from bulky blocking tight ends to fleeter, more athletic guys can be traced to the late 1990s and early 2000s when former college basketball players Tony Gonzalez and Antonio Gates made it big. Since then, players such as Davis and Jimmy Graham, who are known for stretching the field, have become all the rage.

But now things seem to be shifting again.

Teams are now telling draft hopefuls that they want big, fast guys and it is making an impact on how these guys build their bodies.

Ebron says he feels stronger and more comfortable at 250 pounds.

He isn't alone. California moved Richard Rogers from tight end to slot receiver after he trimmed down from 275 pounds to 245, but the 6-foot-4, tight end weighed in this week at 257.

Based on Rogers' size and blocking background, it could give him one distinct advantage heading into draft weekend - teams already know what they're getting from Rogers as a receiver and a blocker.

''I haven't done a lot of it (blocking) this past year but my first two years I was always in a three-point stance, or the majority of the time,'' he said. ''So I am definitely comfortable with it.''

Ebron, on the other hand, is trying to fill out the final piece of his resume.

He has already proven he can run and catch, and if he can show scouts he is capable of opening holes and sealing the edge, too, he knows teams will view him as the most skilled tight end in this class.

''It's become more demanding,'' Ebron said of the position. ''There's become more of a need for talent, speed, and athleticism rather than big bulky just blocking tight ends. It's become a need of special people to play that position in order to create different mismatches and better offenses, so I feel like I fit right in.''

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